You may remember that when I wrote about the Serpotta Stuccoes, I mentioned that the Caravaggio masterpiece, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, had been stolen from the altar of the Oratorio and that the replacement painting was not something one could really admire.
I was more than pleased, therefore, to read in The Guardian a few days ago, that there are hopes that the painting may be recovered soon as Italian investigators have received information that the painting, which was stolen in 1969, could be hidden in Switzerland. The head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission last Thursday said that the information came from a former mobster-turned-informant who revealed that it had once been held by Gaetano Badalamenti, a ‘capo di capo’ (boss of bosses). The informant told the mafia investigators that Badalamenti (who has since died in America where he had been convicted of heroin trafficking) had been in touch with an art dealer in Switzerland.
To have this masterpiece returned to the Oratorio of San Lorenzo would be something wondrous for the people of Palermo, as when the criminals stole the painting by cutting it from its frame with razorblades everyone presumed it was lost forever.
Rosy Bindi, the head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission, told The Guardian that they have collected enough evidence to launch a new investigation and to request the collaboration of foreign authorities, especially those in Switzerland.
Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo, who has helped Palermo transform itself from a stronghold of the mafia to a European Capital of Culture, said that the city was no longer dominated by mobsters and godfathers, that it has changed and now demands the return of everything the mafia had stolen from it.
The return of this painting to the Oratorio will be an event to be celebrated throughout Sicily. I hope it happens soon.
Meantime, here are a few of the pictures of the 16th-century stuccoes from the Oratorio that I originally posted.
The recent death of gardener and plant collector, Beth Chatto OBE, and her mention on Monty Don’s gardening programme on Friday reminded me of the retrospective to her work at the Garden Museum at Lambeth in London (formerly the Museum of Garden History) which I visited a few years ago. I was actually visiting the Tate at the time, just across the river from the Garden Museum, but on the spur of the moment decided to pop in to see what it had to offer.
This national resource for plants and garden history is situated on the South Bank of the Thames and sits right next door to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London residence, Lambeth Palace and, as mentioned, is just across the river from Tate Britain.
It owes its existence to John and Rosemary Nicholson who, in 1976, discovered the neglected and forgotten tomb of the John Tradescants (1570-1638), father and son gardeners to Charles I and the first gardeners and plant hunters in British history. They introduced many of the flowers, shrubs and trees we grow today.
Copyright Garden Museum
Copyright- Garden Museum
The centrepiece of the tranquil Sackler Garden designed to reflect Tradescant’s life and spirit is John Tradescant’s magnificent tomb, erected in 1662 and sculpted with images of the gardeners’ travels and collecting. Before the founding of the Garden Museum in 1977, the church was earmarked for demolition and this masterpiece of funeral art had lain neglected for many decades, the sculpted images unrecognisable beneath the soot that covered it.
On its rescue from demolition over 40 years ago, the church was deconsecrated and subsequently converted into the world’s first museum dedicated to gardens and gardening. The neglected graveyard which adjoined the church is now part of the museum and contains not only the tomb of the Tradescants but the tomb of one whose name most schoolboys will recognise, Captain William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, himself a native of Lambeth.
The garden has as its centrepiece, a 17th-century style knot garden designed by the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury of Hatfield House in the traditional geometric style enclosed in a square. Knot gardens had been popular in Britain since the Tudor period, usually formed of woody herbs clipped in geometric designs but in this case dwarf box (Buxus sempervirens) was used rather than herbs.
Exhibitions of various kinds take place in The Garden Museum, but a Permanent Exhibition runs throughout the year. Among the permanent exhibits is one that charts the development of gardening from pre-historic times to modern day. The on-site library has a fine collection containing information from the Landscape Movement from Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton in the 18th century, to the 19th-century innovations that changed gardening thanks to travel (heated glasshouses and the lawnmower to name just two) and the gardens influenced by the Arts & Crafts Movement pioneered by William Morris.
We tend to forget sometimes how much we owe to the adventurous plant hunters who brought back to these shores the azaleas, jasmine, rhododendrons, clematis, camellias, magnolias and lilies, but here the plant hunters are given due credit for their determination and zeal in seeking these out. Planters like the John Tradescants, Ernest Wilson, William Dampier, Frank Kingdon Ward, Joseph Banks, David Douglas, George Forrest and Francis Masson are names only the dedicated gardeners are familiar with but they are responsible for much of what we love about English gardens today.
Unlike most museums, the Garden Museum is a quiet, tranquil place, the restaurant/cafeteria a delightfully cool and pleasant place in which to have some light refreshments. Take time after a visit to sit contemplatively in the garden for a few moments listening to the birds, or the drone of the bees, as they burrow into the vivid blue agapanthus and the sweet smelling lavender. The hustle and bustle of London seem far away.
I am planning a return visit sometime in late summer as I understand the gardens have had a makeover and there is an added attraction in that they have now opened the on-site medieval tower from which there is an amazing vista over Lambeth Palace and the River Thames.
This magical place is located right in the heart of the capital, just a ten-minute walk from the London Eye, Houses of Parliament, Tate Britain, and Waterloo and Victoria stations.
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Nearest Underground: Lambeth North or Westminster.
A town often overlooked in the Languedoc area is Pézenas, graced with elegant 17th and 18th-century houses of mellow, honey-coloured stone adorned with graceful, wrought iron balconies.
It was once the capital of Languedoc but lost that honour in the late 17th century although it continued to thrive as a trading centre for over 100 years afterwards: if you are there on a Saturday you should visit the market which hasn’t changed much since those days. It further declined as a trading hub when it was bypassed by the railways in the 19th century and became something of a backwater. This could be seen to have been to its benefit, however, as it has managed to preserve much of its charm from earlier days and to have escaped the ravages of over-development that have afflicted so many other French towns in the area.
During the town’s heyday, Pézenas was one of the favourite towns for the cosmopolitan elite to visit. Travelling players made regular stops here and provided the main entertainment of the day, one of whom, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, known to us as Molière, frequently made Pézanas his base.
The famous playwright toured with a troupe of jobbing actors and in the process of acting and playwriting in Pézenas, he became the town’s favourite son. In fact, so popular was he that he acquired the patronage of the Prince of Conti, governor of Languedoc, at whose court in Pézenas they often performed.
At the Place Gambetta lies the heart of this medieval town and this is where Molière would spend much of his day chatting and drinking coffee in the cafes, and visiting the tradesmen in the square among whom he had many friends. Today, the square is a place of many delightful cafes and it gives one the chance to sit and relax while thinking about the famous resident, and maybe even reading some of his work which is available from many of the shops around.
As you wander through the old town you will sometimes find yourself in a different world, alleys lined with houses with chimneys, gables, arches, windows and doors dating from the 14th right up to the 19th century. It is here that you will find the medieval Jewish quarter, just one road where a few buildings carry a Jewish emblem. Jews were able to live quietly here, in an amicable relationship with their Christian neighbours despite having been expelled from France in 1394 under the orders of King Charles Vl. (When I was there a few years ago there was talk of a Jewish Museum being opened in the quarter).
Pézenas has a tradition of fine craftsmanship and you will find many craft shops on your walks through the town, from woodwork to stone carving. New crafts are well represented too in the form of boutique-style fashion shops where the designs range from quirky to haute couture.
The Tourist Office on Place des Etats du Languedoc is one of the most interesting I’ve ever come across, as it is contained, along with the town’s ancient prison, inside the Hôtel Peyrant on Place des Etats du Languedoc.
The building is interesting in its own right, once offering accommodation to aristocrats as well as prisoners. You can explore the old jail but to get the best out of a visit to the Hôtel, try to make time to see the wonderful Scenovision Moliere, a 3D show about the famous playwright that takes place over five acts, each performed in a different room of the building. Details herewith.
The 3D film show in French and English is presented on the upper floors of the tourist office. daily 9am-noon and 2-6pm Monday to Saturday (from 10am on Sun) with a break for lunch, with extended hours over the peak summer season with no lunch break. Adults €6: children €4: families €15
Pézenas Tourist Office, Hotel Peyrat, Place des Etats du Languedoc
Having decided that sentimentality has to give way to practicality when one has downsized and lacks room, I am making strenuous efforts to clear away the bits and bobs that one brings back from one’s travels. I’m not talking the sort of souvenir that one puts on the sideboard or has pride of place in the hall, I’m talking about things like programmes, tickets and other ephemera.
And none that I have short-listed to be disposed of are causing me such a problem as these below.
The Menu on the right is not crumpled, it is the style of paper on which it is printed.
Hand-painted menus are a feature of most of Japan’s Ryokens (traditional Japanese-style hotels) and it was one of the pleasures of the meal to be presented with these delightful examples of Japanese art. Not only were the delicate floral designs lovely to look at but the papers were all of a high quality, often marbled or embossed. The smaller paper was usually the actual menu, folded and tucked inside the larger menu page.
The dishes on which the food was served were equally beautiful, dainty, thin porcelain bowls and plates on which the food was arranged so artistically it seemed wrong to disturb it just to satisfy hunger. I will confess, I didn’t always enjoy the food. There was an amazing amount of small dishes but the texture of so many seemed slimy (an overabundance of abalone in many cases), and when I did get a dish I could enjoy it was of minuscule proportions.
However, here are some pictures of the food. Enjoy these while I try and decide whether I can throw away these lovely menus, or if I can think of another use for them.
All these pictures were taken by one of my travelling companions, Steve Moore, who enjoyed the food on every occasion. I think it shows in his compositions.
There was usually one dish that had to be cooked personally, so a miniature barbecue or a dish of oil would be on the table (one for each person). Nothing too difficult, small pieces of Kobe beef, fish fillets, that sort of thing.
As the menus were in Japanese we were never sure of what we were eating. The waiter/waitress took great care to explain each dish but sometimes there was no translation for what we were faced with, something very pink turned out to be ginger, something that looked like a bean was a paste formed into the shape of a bean.
Imagine the time it took just to arrange these items on the plate.
The camel was probably laughing at the tourists who were trying to bribe the owners of the few horses that were there to help those who couldn’t walk through the old city in the heat. I won’t disclose the nationality of those who had disembarked from a cruise ship and thought to buy their way on to a horse, but they all seemed overweight to me. Surprisingly, in this poor country, the horse owners insisted on first come firsdt served. Or could there have been someone overlooking overlooking the situation, who wasn’t obvious to us?
Another reminder from that trip. One in our group asked the guide if he could stop the sellers of jewellery from pestering us. He just quietly said., “No, Madam. Your buying a small trinket from him could mean the difference between his children eating tonight or not”. Something I’ve never forgotten when I’m feeling under pressure from itinerant sellers.
Dubai is not one of my favourite places, but it’s a place that fascinates me. The most blingtastic city in the world, it outdoes anything you can think of. The excesses of Las Vegas or old Hollywood are as budget ventures besides the seemingly untold wealth on which Dubai runs.
This is so very obvious on its streets and in its architecture, whether you are walking through the gold souk or one of the outrageously expensive Malls, from the Bugatti in a roped-off area to the £105 it can cost you to reach the Top of the Burj to gaze out on the desert below.
How many of the thousands who ascend the famous ‘fastest lifts in the world’ having paid a couple of week’s salary of a local immigrant worker to do so, think that what they are looking out on is what was actually here before the ‘miracle’ of modern Dubai – desert. Is someone having a laugh?
Horse-racing, motor-racing, tennis and athletics featuring the world’s top sportsmen regularly amuse local and visiting wealthy patrons, operas featuring singers from the MET and the ROH are constant events, and pop concerts where mega-stars rock up to perform for astronomical sums of money, mean that Dubai is no longer an isolated desert kingdom but a major player in the entertainment field.
Do you want to go skiing in the middle of a 45-degree summer? Dubai can accommodate that. Do you want to go Wadi-bashing in the desert in a 4WD at night? Ditto? Or how about sleeping under the stars (glamping, of course), eating in a restaurant with exotic fish swimming by, sailing along canals as though in Venice, or ballooning with a falcon? All of these Dubai can offer.
But if you can turn away from the glitz and glamour for a moment, there are quieter pleasures to be had. Swimming in the beautiful Arabian Sea (admittedly not so nice now that they have built The Palm and The World in the said sea), surfing, crisscrossing the Creek on Abras and just wandering, fingering the silks and satins and bartering with the shopkeepers in the old part of town, and watching the porters carry the heavy loads to the boats in the Creek getting ready for the journey across the sea to India.
Judge for yourself. You’ll love it or hate it, or like me be fascinated by it while being depressed by the knowledge that all this is built on the shoulders of immigrant workers from India & Pakistan, poorly paid and poorly housed. The argument that they might otherwise be starving in their home countries is used a lot in Dubai to justify the continued expansion of the city. That’s not a valid argument in this day and age, is it?
Things are improving – somewhat. Only about 20 years ago, there used to be camel races where little boys of 4, 5 and 6 were velcroed to the saddles as jockeys. A great scandal rocked the kingdom when one of the camel owners left a boy to die in the desert (he’d become too old at eight to be light enough to ride the camel). Laws now state that no one under the age of 14 can be employed as a camel-racer but rumours abound that there is still illegal racing in parts of the UAE.
And finally, an irresistible selection of ceramic lavatories. Spoilt for choice, aren’t you?
Writing is at standstill at the moment as I have an eye problem that prevents me from working on the computer (or it takes so long that I can’t do it anyway), so as doorways seems a popular feature of blogs, I thought I’d dig out a few of my favourites. The featured image is of a street of blue doors in East London, the others follow:
You’ve seen pictures of the Balinese: slim, elegant and with perfect white teeth that dazzle in a smile of such beauty that you wonder at the brushing process that produces such perfection? Wonder no more.
It was in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s that we made the trip to Bali, long before teeth-whitening was the commonplace procedure it is today, and long before the need for a mouthful of blindingly white teeth was considered necessary.
The Balinese are a friendly people and Hari, who early in the holiday had attached himself to us, announced one morning that we were invited to the wedding of his cousin, village chieftain and head of a very extended famil in the interior of the island. As it turned out, the marriage ceremony wasn’t the highlight of the day.
The youthful chief who came to greet us after our four-hour drive had just such a smile. Incredibly handsome in a gold-embroidered white tunic, gold slippers on his feet, a white and gold Nehru style hat upon his head, his smile of welcome made my fingers itch for my camera although courtesy required that I take no photographs
After our arrival, there was a general movement of the guests towards a canopy-covered dais which had been set up in the middle of the courtyard. Room was made for us in the front row and glasses of the sticky, sweet, lurid-hued drinks the Balinese like were placed in our hands.
All eyes now turned towards the left of the stage as through the curtains emerged the bride. It is difficult not to lapse into hyperbole when it comes to describing her, even from this distance in time. She was just incredibly beautiful.
A frisson of excitement came from the crowd as from the other side of the stage emerged a very old man dressed in white and carrying what looked like a carpet-bag. He bent over the bride and opened her mouth to examine her teeth. He smoothed her cheeks with his hands and mumbled some words which could have been a prayer. Then from his bag, he produced what I’m sure was an industrial file, some six to eight inches long. This he placed against her teeth.
From my vantage point in the front row, I stared, incomprehension turning to incredulity. A moment later the filing began. As she gripped the sides of the divan until the knuckles showed white, the old man wielded the file along the edge of her teeth, the scratching setting my own teeth on edge. Backwards and forwards it went, the sounds audible above the whispering of the onlookers, and backwards and forwards went the old man’s arm as he filed.
Once the filing was underway we, as special guests, were encouraged to mount the dais to inspect the damage being inflicted at closer quarters.
My husband was asked to record the scene on our movie camera (remember those?) as the chief wanted a permanent record of the ceremony. The old man continued working as we filmed, only once lifting his head and smiling with his infrequent teeth into the camera. By now the bride had a wedge of cotton between her teeth – to keep from screaming or to keep the teeth apart? I wasn’t sure. My smile of encouragement brought a squeeze of the hand from her and as I looked at the tears glistening in the corners of her eyes I could only marvel at the continuation of a custom that caused such obvious pain, has no relevance to religion, and which was regarded as a special treat for the bride. For yes, this was her bridal present – to have her teeth filed.
The teeth are filed along the edges until both top and bottom rows are even. They are then filed across until they are of a velvety smoothness, the result of practically all the enamel having been removed. They are now of an even size and a uniform brilliant white – like very fine porcelain – and beautiful. But the loss of the enamel means the speedy deterioration of the teeth, the juice from the betel-nut they all chew stains them brown very quickly, and before middle-age, what teeth are left are loose and discoloured.
I can’t remember how long the ceremony lasted, about an hour I think. I wandered into the eating area but I had lost my appetite. The sweet sticky drinks, bright red and green, and the sweets made from coconut milk and sugar served only to remind me of the early decay that they encouraged.
My few prints have deteriorated over the years and were printed on matt paper which serves to make them a trifle blurry. Etiquette demanded that I did not photograph some people at all and those I did had to be photographed from a distance. We were a long way from the tourist spots and even then, Bali was fairly undiscovered. Few people there spoke English and I spoke no Indonesian which made it all much more difficult.
This account was printed in Dental Hygiene magazine in the UK in 1992 and reprinted in the Swedish Dental Association magazine for the 81st FDI Congress in Goteborg 1993.